President Ramaphosa declared a national lockdown
  • Seven South African companies, organisations and researchers received R18 million from the department of science and innovation to produce locally-developed chemicals and kits to test for Covid-19.
  • As the novel coronavirus spreads through SA, its testing laboratories are struggling to keep up, in part due to a shortage of supplies.
  • The organisations will be producing diagnostic tools, such as kits to isolate the virus in swab samples, and rapid tests.
  • According to the agreement with government, they will need to begin production in six months.
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With grants ranging from R590,000 to R3.4-million, seven local organisations are working to produce reagents and test kits to ramp up South Africa’s ability to test for SARS-CoV-2, the Covid-19-causing virus. In total, government is funding them to the tune of about R18-million. 

As of 6 July, the country had more than 200,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and had performed almost 1.9-million tests. However, its testing capacity has been hampered by a lack of testing supplies. “South Africa currently sources these reagents from international companies, but increasing global demand, fluctuating exchange rates and limited transport options are affecting the supply – resulting in an urgent need to source these components locally,” higher education, science and innovation minister Blade Nzimande said

The government received eight proposals to develop diagnostic reagents and 24 proposals to develop point-of-care rapid diagnostics. Out of those, three projects were chosen to create reagents – two from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and one from the University of Cape Town – and four projects will attempt to develop rapid detection kits.  

Rapid detection kits would allow officials to test for the presence of the virus or virus proteins within a patient's sample.

The current gold standard tests are molecular assays, such as reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). This test extracts the virus’ fingerprints from a person’s sample, turns them into pieces of virus DNA, and amplifies them so that they can be detected. These tests take time and specialised equipment. 

Rapid diagnostic tests on the other hand can be administered to patients on the spot and can give results in as little as 15 minutes. However, there are some concerns about rapid tests – namely their accuracy.

In May for the first time, the US Food and Drug Administration licensed the emergency use of a rapid antigen test. Quidel Corporation, the company producing the test, says it has a 20% false-negative rate, meaning one in five infected people will be diagnosed as negative.  

The department is aware of the concerns around rapid diagnostic tests, says deputy director-general for technology innovation Mmboneni Muofhe. "[We] are also firm believers in science and its ability to improve by building on both good and bad experiences," he says. "We do think that these tests have a huge role to play in the management of Covid-19." They are also working "not just to manufacture locally but use research to bring better products into the market".

The seven organisations being funded by the department of science and innovation, including the four developing rapid diagnostic tests  – Medical Diagnostech, Gknowmix, Mintek, Diagnostic Aptamer Technologies-Aminotek – are on a tight schedule, and have six months to get their products ready for production.

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